Thoughts: The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin

First of all, how dare she.

OK, seriously though, surprise! The Fifth Season, volume one in the trilogy that won a Hugo for each instalment, is good!

At the risk of becoming one of those recipe blogs that frontloads a thousand words about the blogger’s first memories of cooking the recipe and how they took their kids to the park afterwards (joking, all of those recipe blogs are homesteaders who probably wouldn’t go to something as pedestrian as a park)… I thought it would be a good idea to pick this one up now because NaNoWriMo is coming up, and this year I’m going to write sci fi, which I hardly ever write, so why not enjoy some good spec fic in the run-up to get psyched up for November? On the upside, The Fifth Season is a masterclass in worldbuilding. On the downside, I will never be able to write anything even a quarter as good and now I have to go and live in a cave away from human eyes.

But no one cares about that. If you’re here you want to know about The Fifth Season, so let me save you the time – read it, it’s really good.

I’m not in the habit of giving content warnings for the books I read, because this is just my own personal record really, but this one does contain some child death that I found pretty harrowing. It’s hard to say if it was particularly harrowing in an objective sense or if this is just the way I am now. I’ve certainly found all sorts of child peril much more upsetting than I used to. I’m not sure why; either from a (rather narrow-minded) view of “now I have a child I Truly Understand”, or because I never really spent time with young children before, and now, for want of better wording, I know what a young child is. Probably a mix of both! Anyway, it’s all by the by, just something I was wondering about.

I kept seeing people mention The Fifth Season as an example of ~experimental narration~ and similar, and talk about how it was hard to get into the narrative voice because it was somehow exotic or difficult, so I was a bit interested in that, and it turned out to be… second person. That’s it. It’s a vividly-voiced narrator in second person. It’s not difficult to get into at all – it’s very easy to slip into, because Jemisin is very good. From the very beginning I was happy to settle in and be Essun

I know some people don’t like second person, and I will be honest here, I don’t really get those people. I mean, I understand having preferences, and I understand being warier about certain styles (multiple first person perspectives is so hard to do well that you may as well not bother, for example) but I don’t get people who dislike second person because it’s describing things that they-the-reader are not doing or the hair colour is wrong or whatever. I mean, why bother reading fiction at all?

Anyway, the narrative voice is great, the second person is frankly wonderful, the worldbuilding is sublime. There were points when I had to leave the room and go somewhere quiet and alone to read, because it was too intense to read with any possibility of interruption (and a baby is a big possibility of interruption). The terminology is also a delight, which I know is a weird thing to say, but Jemisin’s just really good at naming things. Have you ever tried to name things? It’s hard!

I won’t say too much about the plot – you can find the summary on Goodreads, written better than anything I could do, and without any accidental spoilers – but I will say that I managed to guess the very final reveal. I only say it because I never guess reveals or twists, and I was very proud of myself. Can’t wait to get to the next one.

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